My Understanding of Joshua

Joshua was either a great folk hero or one of the bloodiest generals of all time. I was struck by the brutality of this book. Sure, I knew about the colorful story of the trumpets at Jericho. I guess I never fully understood the brutality and extent of this holy war to obtain the Promise Land. Somehow, I had this idea that there were a few battles, but eventually the land that Yahweh had promised would come easy. The opposite is true. This was a bitter struggle. War is brutal. We sometimes forget that. Even the cruel world wars of the twentieth century had some rules. However, the idea of total destruction and annihilation never came to mind when I thought of the Holy Land. Yet this total destruction is part of the history, and even continues to the present day, of this holy land. Land is precious. Even today we talk about turf war in our twenty-first century cities.

The Book of Joshua has two basic parts, the taking of Canaan and the division of this land among the Israelite tribes, with a concluding farewell of Joshua. The basic question remains is this a historical book? Certainly, it is not historical in the sense of twenty-first century historical works with footnotes and sources. However, it is classified among the historical works by many Christians.  Nevertheless, it seems more like a prophetic work, as it is classified in the Hebrew Bible among the former or older prophets. It certainly is in the Deuteronomic tradition, since many of the same themes appear here as in Deuteronomy.

Did Joshua write this book? Certainly there was a traditional belief that if a book had a name on it, then that must be the author. It is about Joshua so that this name seems appropriate. In fact, most scholars hold that it was written sometime in the seventh or sixth century BCE, about five to six hundred years after the events presented in this book. Nevertheless, some of these older stories may have ancient roots that survived in various forms.

The basic ideas are simple. Be faithful to Yahweh because he has chosen you, Israel, as his special people. This land is special, the land flowing with milk and honey, the land of Canaan. The enemies must be defeated and annihilated completely. They must suffer herem, total destruction. Israel can have no other gods. Therefore they must obey Yahweh and his laws.

The parallels with Moses are very clear throughout this book. Joshua is the successor to Moses. He acts in the same way as the new Moses. The Jordan River stops flowing just like the Red Sea, so that all the Israelites can pass over to the Promised Land. Joshua gives instructions to the people, like Moses. The Levitical priests with the Ark of the Covenant lead the Israelites in crossing the Jordan, instead of Yahweh in a cloud.

After crossing the Jordan River, they camp at Gilgal. Joshua sent out spies to Jericho, where the spies make a deal with Rahab the prostitute. Their first act in the new land is to have a mass circumcision and to celebrate a Passover, as was done after the Red Sea crossing. The battles in the new land of Canaan begin after Joshua has a theophany vision with the Commander of the army of Yahweh, just like Moses at the burning bush.

First, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down with the loud trumpet and ram horn blasts along with the shouts of the people. The destruction of Jericho is complete. However, because one man named Achan took some of the things belonging to the local god, their initial attach against Ai is a failure. However, they regroup after stoning Achan to death for taking money and the sacred idol materials from Jericho. Eventually Joshua has a plan to ambush the town that works. There is a complete destruction of the town of Ai, the second herem.

Then they renew the covenant with Yahweh at Mount Ebal where they build at altar. This renewal of the covenant seems similar to Mesopotamian divine land-grant ceremonies. They then continue their unstoppable campaign in the central part of Canaan with victory after victory.

Then the Israelites head south. The Gibeonites trick the Israelites into believing that they are from some faraway place with their ragged clothes. They enter into a peace treaty, which had been forbidden. Nevertheless the Gibeonites end up as something like indentured slaves. They then take Jerusalem. This hanging of captured kings was a common practice in 8th century BCE Mid East time frame.

Next the Joshua led Israelites head north. They have a big victory at Hazor where they capture a group of people. Interesting enough, there is a long list of captured kings and territories. However, when we get to the Book of Judges, they seem to be still fighting these same people in these same towns. Nevertheless, the Israelites thought that they had enough peace to divide up the new land.

The new situation turns into a lottery, something like the American homesteading act or land grants. The east side of the Jordan has already been determined by Moses, with Gad, Reuben, and the half tribe of Manasseh set up there. They are then sent on their way home to the east side of the Jordan. On their way to the east side there is a flare up about why they built a separate altar to Yahweh. It is resolved before everyone goes to war with each other.

Next comes the big three on the western side, Judah with Manasseh and Ephraim, the two sons of Joseph. Basically, Judah gets the south side and the other two get the northern area. What is left is then split up among the seven other tribes. Simeon gets a little of the southern part of Judah. Benjamin gets squeezed in between Judah and Ephraim. Dan is there by Benjamin also, but ends up in the north with the far northern tribes of Asher, Zebulun, Naphtali, and Issachar. Levi gets no territory, but over 40 separate towns all over the place. Then there are 6 refuge towns, where killers go before they go on trial.

This book ends with Joshua’s farewell address and another covenant renewal at Shechem. At this great gathering, Joshua asks the Israelites to remain faithful to Yahweh and his covenant. He also warns them if they should leave Yahweh and follow other gods there would be consequences. He reminded them of Yahweh’s great works. They needed to love Yahweh alone. After the covenant ceremony, he sent the people to their lands. Finally, the leaders of the second generation of Israelites died, Joshua and Eleazar son of Aaron. They also bury Joseph’s bones. What will happen to the Israelites after the death of Joshua? There does not seem to be a chosen replacement leader.

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